by Carrie Preston

You think beforehand that when you build a stand at Chelsea you will have lots of opportunity to view and photograph the other gardens. And in theory the opportunity is there, but the time is dearly lacking. If I compare my photographs from last year’s Chelsea with those from this year, the contrast couldn’t be greater. A very quick, rushed walk around the grounds here gave me overblown, middle of the day images of Dan Pearson’s garden and the Singaporean water fall. A moment there, grabbed later, reaped other builders working hard on details of their gardens. I have an astounding number of butt shots as well.

Men fiddling with the water element in Dan Peason's garden.
Men fiddling with the water element in Dan Peason’s garden.

But being on the grounds also give you insight into the event and the culture surrounding it that you otherwise would never have. You see the carefully wrapped Iris flowers tenderly prepared for a stand in the Grand Pavilion and the hundreds, thousands, of flowers being prepared for the Thai stand. You feel the enormous amount of work, joy and focus that goes into each and every display.

Flowers prepped for the Thai stand.
Flowers prepped for the Thai stand.

We for our part had too many plants. Not just a few extra, but like 80% more plants than we could technically use. This brought logistical problems, a lot of shuffling and the constant knowledge that at any moment we could be asked to move plants out of someone else’s space. More than 2 days worth of manpower were spent just shuffling. But all these extra plants not only gave us gave us the freedom to choose the best in our own garden but it also allowed us to give plants away and have contact with those building other gardens. Our Geum ‘Tangerine’ could be seen popping up in various other gardens throughout the event like little orange flags waving at us.

I mean, how could you not love that? it's perfection!
I mean, how could you not love that? it’s perfection!

Chelsea is a highly competitive event. Everyone is striving to be the best of the best, but what you realize when you are there is that this competition is very inwardly directed. Everyone’s aim is to do their own personal best, to build their own display to perfection. The competition between displays isn’t really part of things. People are just as happy for their neighbor to do extremely well as themselves (well, nearly then). I think in part this has to do with the fact that each garden is judged on its own merit and not necessarily compared with others. This creates a culture of cooperation and sharing. Everyone is exceptionally friendly during the build, even as the deadline looms and the stress mounts. You are competing with time and your own limitations and not with each other.

Iris carefully wrapped in toilet paper to protect the individual flowers.
Iris carefully wrapped in toilet paper to protect the individual flowers.

That said, there is the need to do something new. The danger of Chelsea is that in this striving for perfection (and the limitations of the season) many of the gardens start to look like each other. They are “Chelsea pretty” — soft wispy grass, perfect irises and foxgloves. A sort of safe generic style arises. How do you balance wanting to break from this mold with not taking so many risks that you ruin your chances at gold? You see designers searching for the answer to this dilemma. More plants not in flower. More subtlety. Of course, everyone is reacting to the same thing and so the trend, to some extent, moves together. What was innovative and new last year – wild flower turf, Melica, flowering Luzula – might be a success this year but risk being a cliché by next. Dan Pearson’s garden where he used wildflower turf as a matrix in his Chatsworth landscape succeeded in finding that sweet spot and expresses innovative thought in garden design at the moment. But anyone who uses shrubs, rocks or wild flower turf in a similar way in the next couple of years needs to be very careful that they are reinventing rather than mimicking what he has done. A tough challenge.

Proteas in the Kirstenbosch garden.
Proteas in the Kirstenbosch garden.
Primulas along the trout stream in Dan Pearson's garden. It looks like they have always been there -- the skill necessary to achieve that!
Primulas along the trout stream in Dan Pearson’s garden. It looks like they have always been there — the skill necessary to achieve that!
Atmosphere of Dan Pearson's garden.
Atmosphere of Dan Pearson’s garden.
I really, really liked this garden - the atmosphere, the planting. Very, very refreshing.
I really, really liked this garden – the atmosphere, the planting. Very, very refreshing.
I am not so much a fan of this as that appreciate the level of skill that went into building it.
I am not so much a fan of this as that appreciate the level of skill that went into building it.
And our garden during the show, acting like it hadn't taken any work and has always been there. Ha!
And our garden during the show, acting like it hadn’t taken any work and has always been there. Ha!
Details in Dan Pearson's garden. So, I had Primula, Ranunculsus and Rhododendron lutea all on my "when I do a Chelsea garden" list. Wondering if I need to scratch them all after seeing this. Drats.
Details in Dan Pearson’s garden. So, I had Primula, Ranunculsus and Rhododendron lutea all on my “when I do a Chelsea garden” list. Wondering if I need to scratch them all after seeing this. Drats.
The Rich brothers -- the youngest designers to ever be at Chelsea. They have got that wispy, soft, meadowy planting down right. They had some super gorgeous Baptisias in their planting that were just wow.
The Rich brothers — the youngest designers to ever be at Chelsea. They have got that wispy, soft, meadowy planting down right. They had some super gorgeous Baptisias in their planting that were just wow.
Flowers being prepared for the Thai stand in the Grand Pavilion.
Flowers being prepared for the Thai stand in the Grand Pavilion.
Check out that fence! So simple and understated and perfect in this garden - borrowed from the African vernacular.
Check out that fence! So simple and understated and perfect in this garden – borrowed from the African vernacular.
Luzula doing what it does so well.
Luzula doing what it does so well.
Imagine yourself having a glass of cooled white wine and some olives in that little sunken patio...
Imagine yourself having a glass of cooled white wine and some olives in that little sunken patio…
Not the best shot but this Perfumers garden may have been my favorite in the show. I passed it every day en route to our own and it smelled so good! Like rosemary wafting at you every time!
Not the best shot but this Perfumers garden may have been my favorite in the show. I passed it every day en route to our own and it smelled so good! Like rosemary wafting at you every time!
If God is in the details, then God is definitely hanging out at Chelsea.
If God is in the details, then God is definitely hanging out at Chelsea.
Check out that waterfall!
Check out that waterfall!
I predict we will see more Doronicum next year as well.
I predict we will see more Doronicum next year as well.
Builders taking a well deserved break in the Daily Telegraph garden, or the "Mondrian garden" as I kept referring to it.
Builders taking a well deserved break in the Daily Telegraph garden, or the “Mondrian garden” as I kept referring to it.

One Response to Chelsea Flower Show: Views & Trends – Extremely Close – Part 3

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful series of posts! I always love seeing the Chelsea garden coverage but this is the first time I’ve seen the trends discussed as more than just individual plants. Very helpful!

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